• Posted on September 23, 2019

King Mouse

A few months ago, when I first saw an illustration from King Mouse, the new book by Cary Fagan and Dena Seiferling, I knew it would be one of the most beautiful books published this, or any year. With that one illustration of a tiny, pointy-nosed mouse wearing a crown, I was immediately transported to a miniature, magical world, deeply resonant of classic children’s literature. Something about the delicacy of the line and the soothing gentleness of the story felt very old. I was, and am, in love with King Mouse.

It begins with a lost treasure.

A person, presumably a child, rides through a trail strewn with wildflowers, towing a wagon of crowns. Where is she going with her golden cargo? Several crowns fall off, and a mouse in search of a food finds one of these crowns, and places it on his head. Immediately he feels different – and special. A bear asks the mouse if he is a king, and after thinking about it for moment, the mouse answers yes. Soon, other forest dwellers arrive, offering their allegiance as well as a variety of gifts to the newly crowned King Mouse.

Eventually, the adulation grows tiresome and it doesn’t take long for King Mouse to become bored – and then jealous, after a snake also finds a crown and the kingdom gains a queen. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, especially if you can no longer claim preeminence. Soon, others start finding crowns, and in one of the funnier moments of the book, all the animals parade around shouting “hail to me!”

But…one creature, the bear, has failed to find a crown. He walks away, slump shouldered, feeling terrible.

King Mouse notices, and it rouses him out of his narcissistic trance. This may be overstating it – King Mouse is a kid’s book after all – but the creatures, once they don their crowns, become instantly focused on their heightened status. When the mouse is able to look beyond his own situation and notice someone who is in distress, it is profound and moving. Fagan and Seiferling bring great subtlety and sweetness to their storytelling, but it is never heavy-handed. The joy of this book is in the gentleness of it, but make no mistake, King Mouse is saying something about empathy – the ability, learned very young, to cast your paws into another creature’s shoes (even if they aren’t wearing any).

Seiferling’s exquisite illustrations are a joy all their own. Though her style is distinct, I am reminded of Beatrix Potter, and more recently, Peter McCarty and Chris Van Allsburg, for reasons that have something to do with how she applies her illustrative marks to the page, but mostly for the sensitivity she brings to each character. Her creatures, and the forest that surrounds them, are carefully observed but imaginative renderings that are full of elegant, unforced charm.

Like the crowns that suddenly appear in the forest, King Mouse is a rare treasure. It’s not easy to create a picture book this beautiful in a field rife with clunky, pandering efforts. And while Cary Fagan has written many wonderful children’s books, including Thing Thing, previously reviewed in this blog, King Mouse is Dena Sieferling’s first picture book. How can this be?

I first became acquainted with her work on Instagram, where she posts photos of her needle felting projects. This is a practice I’ve only recently discovered, by which I mean, I don’t do it – I just appreciate the beauty and delicacy of this unusual art form.

BEEautful! An example of Dena Seiferling’s needle-felt art

After graduating from the Alberta College of Art and Design, Seiferling kept busy with commercial projects, in addition to working as an instructor at ACAD. She particularly enjoyed the initial pencil sketches that would precede each finished project, which is why she now focuses on graphite as her primary medium for illustration, as seen in King Mouse.

Following the birth of her first child, Seiferling was looking for ways to “switch things up” and began to explore other mediums. I talked to her about this, and King Mouse, which is being released on September 24.

“It was a very magical time in my life, full of new experiences and dealing with many “unknowns,” she says, from her home in Calgary, Alberta. “It brought back a longing for the imagination I had as a child, so I began something new – needle felted animal sculptures. I missed working with my hands (too much working on the computer!) so I was excited to evolve my drawings into three-dimensional, tactile forms – and from that point into many new directions including animation, puppets for film and gallery exhibitions. It has also greatly informed and influenced all of my illustration work, including the work that you see in King Mouse.”

Can you describe the experience of having your first picture book out in the world?

It feels wonderful! As a child, I would spend hours getting lost in the stories I read, submerged in a world where anything is possible and anxieties of navigating through my youth were calmed with laughter, amusement and wonder. My Aunt Faye was a Teacher Librarian and would give me the best children’s books for every occasion, books which I still covet today as an adult. The opportunity to illustrate a children’s book feels like a way to give children that sense of wonder and magic I experienced, and I couldn’t have asked for better way to start that with King Mouse. Serendipitous in timing and subject matter, it felt like the characters I developed were already there waiting to pair with Cary Fagan’s story.

How did you get matched with Cary?

Tara Walker, VP and Publisher at Penguin Random House Canada Young Readers [publisher of Tundra Books], contacted me after seeing the work I promoted on Instagram, proposing that I illustrate a children’s book. She happened to have a manuscript she thought might work well with my illustration style – Cary Fagan’s King Mouse. It was a perfect match as the story inspired me right from the beginning!

What is your artistic process?

I start with many rough sketches which are then refined towards a final draft. The final artwork is graphite on cotton paper with colour added digitally in Photoshop. Sometimes I create three-dimensional versions of the characters that I’m developing in addition to my drawings.

Your quote, “I enjoy hybridizing hypothetical human and animal experiences, drawing parallels between the two, triggering empathy for animals as well as creating a connection to the viewer in a very personal way,” very much gets to the heart of your illustrations and needle-felt work. Can you talk about that?

Foremost, I strive to create a connection between my characters and the audience through anthropomorphism. I realize that there is debate over whether anthropomorphizing animals is damaging or productive, but I think the positives win when the belief that animals have emotion and feelings similar to our own results in valuing and protecting them. Especially as we are losing animal species at astronomical rates. On another note, I think that by drawing ridiculously silly parallels from perceived scary animals to humans, there is a fear being addressed, an anxiety being eased and a tolerance being practised through empathy.

Have you always created art?

Well, the story goes that from the time I was two, I always had a pencil in hand! As I got older, observing character and capturing the underlying personality and soul of a subject is something that specifically gripped my imagination. I spent a lot of my free time drawing portraits during my elementary and high school years, then I would adorn my bedroom walls with the drawings. I was influenced by a mother who appreciates handmade objects with a historical context (antique collecting) and my father’s zest for building anything he set his mind to (ranges from airplanes to fuzz pedals for electric guitars) and I think that because of this, I wasn’t afraid to try my hand at making new things.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on my largest body of sculpture work yet for a solo exhibition in May 2020 at the Corey Helford Gallery in Los Angeles. I will be posting more information about this on my Instagram profile as it progresses. I also just completed the illustration work for a book written by Helaine Becker, published by Owl Books, to be released in the fall of 2020 and soon I will begin working on a new children’s book written by Cary Fagan, published by Tundra, to be released Spring 2021.

King Mouse by Cary Fagan with illustrations by Dena Seiferling is published by Tundra Books, 2019.

Read my review of Thing Thing by Cary Fagan here.

To purchase King Mouse in Edmonton, please contact The Prints and the Paper for this book and other personally curated and always amazing children’s picture books.   

Dena Seiferling:
Website: pickleandfrancois.com
Instagram: @pickleandfrancois

  • Posted on August 25, 2019

Nobody Hugs a Cactus

Many years ago, a former boss gave everyone on her team a cactus just before the Christmas break. It was an unusually pointy gift, and my suspicion about its inherent symbolism was confirmed a year later, when we all received knock-off Swiss army knives. Stay away – I am prickly. The fact that we already knew this about her was not the point, no pun intended. For some reason, she wanted to give us tiny versions of herself. We got the message, and we obliged.

In Nobody Hugs a Cactus by Carter Goodrich, the main character – Hank, the aforementioned succulent, is indeed, very prickly, and boy oh boy he does not want anyone or anything to come near. He is content to sit in his window perch, alone, staring out into the “hot, dry, peaceful and quiet” desert landscape.  

Hank watches suspiciously as a parade of well-meaning critters of the animal, reptile, human and tumbleweed variety pass by, all of whom try to woo Hank out of his self-imposed isolation. They are rebuffed, one by one.  

It’s a cowboy, striding in on hilariously long legs, who first suggests to Hank that he might need a hug, but then adds, “Too bad nobody hugs a cactus.”

One gets the impression that Hank may not know what a hug is, but whatever it is, he doesn’t want it, and so he doubles down on his next insult to a skittering lizard. “Just in case you’re wondering, I don’t want a hug.” The lizard is only too happy to comply. “That’s good, because I don’t want to give you one.” The tables have now turned, and it’s the visitors who reject Hank. A little hurt by the lizard’s remark, he begrudgingly offers to hug an owl, who abruptly turns him down.

For the first time, Hank feels lonely.  

We don’t always know what we need, or we do and we fear asking for it. In choosing a cactus with all its barbs and pointy spines to convey vulnerability, Goodrich is suggesting that underneath even the strongest, most impenetrable armour, there is always something soft. Something that needs attention. Lucky for Hank, in a moment of distress – amusing to the reader but not so much for Hank – he is rescued, literally and figuratively, by Rosie, a cheerful tumbleweed.

The way he thanks his new friend, by growing a flower for her, is the reason I bought this book. This illustration is so hopeful, so beautiful, so full of heart. The posture of his arm, outstretched, with “the best flower he could grow” is Goodrich at his best. He is able to convey feeling without being cloying or manipulative. His illustrations often make me laugh – and one with a jackrabbit made me laugh out loud in the bookstore – but they also make me love. Deeply. When he unveils this flower, I love Hank. And readers will love Hank. He is trying, very, very hard to make a connection. In opening up to kindness, Hank himself becomes kind.

This is not the end of the story, but suffice to say, Hank is a changed cactus.

In Nobody Hugs a Cactus, Goodrich paints the desert background in golden watercolour washes, the details diffuse, focusing instead on the wild array of characters who populate the otherwise sparse landscape. Expression, posture, emotion – this is Goodrich territory. With a deft hand and an empathetic heart, he imbues his characters, even a small, ornery cactus, with such lovableness, it is impossible not to care. This succulent may be prickly, but as Goodrich knows, it’s all surface. Bring it in, Hank.

I have long been a fan of Carter Goodrich. My entry drug was his beautiful and often politically barbed covers for the New Yorker, but it’s his trilogy of books featuring two dogs, Mister Bud and Zorro, that made me fall in love with this two-time Society of Illustrators gold medal winning illustrator. No surprise, Goodrich is also a character designer for such films as Brave, Despicable Me and Ratatouille, for which won the International Animated Film Society’s Annie Award for character design.

Nobody Hugs a Cactus by Carter Goodrich. Published by Simon & Schuster, 2019.

Check out Carter Goodrich’s website here.

Read my review of Mister Bud Wears the Cone

Read my review of Zorro Gets an Outfit

Read my review of Say Hello to Zorro!

  • Posted on June 21, 2018

The Honeybee

I love bees.

I may have begun another bee book review this way, but the sentiment remains true. I love bees, and I love books about bees. The Honeybee by Kirsten Hall and Canadian illustrator Isabelle Arsenault would make me fall in love with bees even if – gasp – I hated bees. Instead, this joyous, beautiful book makes me fall in love all over again.

I didn’t start out that way. Like most, I feared bees, especially their array of stinger accessories, but the more trails I walked, the more flowers and gardens and fields I observed, the more my admiration grew for these tiny, gentle pollinators.

The Honeybee takes us on a journey through the life of a bee, and a bee colony, as pollen is collected and honey created. The story trajectory is familiar – we all kinda know what bees do – but in word and image, The Honeybee stands alone as a thing of absolute beauty. Kirsten Hall’s playful poetry tells the story simply and humourously, but with a kind of meandering lilt, as if the words are perched on the hum of a bee. Isabelle Arsenault continues her run of stunning picture books, finding new ways to visually charm, and at the same time, comfort, with a throw-back warmth reminiscent of classic children’s picture book fare.

As the story begins, the reader is invited over a hill to a field of wild flowers, where a bee makes her debut in a celebratory, double-page spread.

A BEE!

Yes, a bee, with an affable, smiling face and a pair of big friendly eyes. Perhaps not quite an accurate portrayal of Apis mellifera, but true to the jubilant spirit of the book. This bee is an absolute darling, buzzing and humming through the pages as she whirls around fields of wild flowers collecting pollen. Who better than Isabelle Arsenault to imagine this blossomed landscape? The three-time Governor General Award-winning illustrator makes yellow and black, and its variations, the dominant colours – a nod to the bees’ striped apparel. The pops of pink and blue in the flowers are all the more stunning against this honeyed backdrop.

Like a hive, every element – from Hall’s storytelling to Arsenault’s glorious illustrations, work in balanced harmony. The text, which has a lovely hand-drawn quality, uses a font designed by Arsenault, named Honeybee. This book lives and breathes…and buzzes…its subject matter.

The Honeybee does what most children’s books with a message fail to do. It charms, eliciting an appreciation in the reader not only for bees and the work they do, but for the natural environment that supports their livelihoods, and tangentially, ours. Author Kirsten Hall has a deft hand, lovingly and reverentially telling the story of the honeybee. In making us fall in love, we are much more apt to respond with love. As she states in the postscript: “I wrote this story for an important reason. The honeybee is one of our world’s most marvelous creatures. And sadly, it’s in danger. In writing this book, I was hoping you might grow a new appreciation for the honeybee – and that you’ll join me in caring about its future.” Mission accomplished.

Kirsten Hall is a former preschool and elementary school teacher who has authored more than a hundred learn-to-read stories for emergent readers. Today, she is the founder and owner of a boutique children’s book illustration and literary agency, Catbird Productions. Hall is the author of the picture books The Gold Leaf and The Jacket, which was a New York Times Notable Book of 2014. Follow her at: hallwayskirsten.tumblr.com

Isabelle Arsenault is one of Canada’s – and the world’s – best and most celebrated illustrators. She studied graphic design at Universite du Quebec a Montreal, and in 2004 illustrated her first children’s book, Le Coeur de Monsieur Gauguin, for which she received Canada’s highest artistic honour, the Governor General’s Literary Award for Illustration. Following this, she was a finalist on three other occasions for the GG’s: My Letter to the World, Once Upon a Northern Night, and Migrant, which was also among The New York Times 10 best illustrated books of 2011. In 2012, Arsenault received her second Governor General’s Award for Virginia Wolf, and in 2013, she received her third Governor General’s Award for the French edition of the graphic novelesque picture book, Jane, the Fox and Me (Jane, le renard et moi). See more of her work here: isabellearsenault.com

The Honeybee by Kirsten Hall, with illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault. Atheneum Books, 2018.

Other Isabelle Arsenault illustrated books reviewed in 32 Pages:

Once Upon a Northern Night by Jean Pendziwol

Migrant by Maxine Trottier

Jane, the Fox & Me by Fanny Britt (included in a roundup)

Other BEEautiful books reviewed in this blog: UnBEElievables by Douglas Florian (Beach Lane Books, 2012)

  • Posted on April 30, 2017

A Perfect Day

I bought this book for the bear.

That was enough. The bear with the corn-cob grin.

I remember when A Perfect Day was announced in 2016. I said, this will be my favourite book of 2017. I can’t say whether this will prove to be true, but I can say this – the illustration of the bear with the corn cob stretched across his mouth is as good as it gets.

Bear aside, the rest of A Perfect Day is a wonder to behold, which of course is what I’ve come to expect from Lane Smith, an extraordinary illustrator and writer whose work so often ascends into the realm of genius.

Textural, beautifully observed and deeply humourous, Lane’s illustrations are instantly recognizable, but the two-time Caldecott recipient always seems to find new and creative ways of making marks on a page. In A Perfect Day, he manipulates the natural lines of the paint strokes to suggest the fur and feathers of the animals in the story, each of whom are enjoying a perfect day for a variety of reasons. This is due – in part – to a boy named Bert, who in his generosity is enjoying his own kind of perfect day.

A cat rolls in daffodils. A dog sits in a wading pool of cool water. A recently filled bird feeder pleases a chickadee. A squirrel is the happy recipient of a corn cob. Each of them is having a perfect day, until a big, brown bear shows up and steals the corn cob from the squirrel, helps himself to the birdseed, guzzles water from the wading pool, and then rolls around in the flower bed, reflecting happily and contentedly on his perfect day.

Oh, bear.

Once I was camping with my family in Jasper and a bear strolled up to our campsite and helped himself to our hamburgers. All of them. Bears do what they want.

Each critter finds happiness in the small pleasures of a summer day, and this is especially true of the bear, who is either oblivious to the havoc he creates or is in fact taking pleasure in it. The way he kind of flaunts his acquisitions, his corn-cob grin for instance, suggests the latter. Not all pleasures are innocent.

The simple narrative is enlivened by beautiful and giggle-worthy illustrations that tell the story so vividly the words are largely unnecessary. Employing a number of different media, including (I believe) watercolour, pen and collage, Smith’s sweet, and at times, woeful characters move from peace to chaos as the massive bear abruptly ends their perfect day. He is the ultimate vibe-killer.

There is just enough detail in Smith’s illustrations to render form and expression, and the rest is just play. Highly skilled play, but play nonetheless. The way the paint overlaps and adheres to the surface, absorbing the varying textures of the paper. The mix of line, dot and splash, white space and colour. The way Smith captures, with an absence of detail, the luxuriating swish of the bears arms and legs in the flowerbed. Lane Smith has always been a unique and experimental illustrator, but in the creation of this book, he too is having a perfect day.

As any regular reader of this blog will know, and that’s asking a lot considering my non-existent production of late, I love Lane Smith. To use hockey parlance, Lane Smith is a generational illustrator. The beauty of his illustrations and the quirkiness of his vision long ago separated this artist from the pack. Of course, there are other generational illustrators and like Smith, they too have carved out their own niche, but there is only one Stinky Cheese Man.

A Perfect Day by Lane Smith, Roaring Brook Press, 2017

Other Lane Smith picture books reviewed in this blog:

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (George Saunders, Lane Smith)

Abe Lincoln’s Dream (Lane Smith)

Spooky ABC (Eve Merriam, Lane Smith)

  • Posted on September 05, 2016

Um…yeah.

So I’ve been away from this blog for…I’m afraid to count the days. Months? No solid explanation other than life. Busy, busy life.

I aim to do better. I want to do better. Children’s picture books mean everything to me (as does hyperbole), and just because I’ve temporarily stopped writing reviews doesn’t mean – by any stretch – that I’ve stopped collecting them or pondering their singular illustrative and literary qualities. I have many beauties lined up for review. On tables, on the floor. I am overwhelmed by books. Maybe that’s part of the problem. A happy problem, but still…a problem.

In the time I’ve been ‘away’, I have discovered a new artist. Not personally discovered, of course.  I’m sure Kenard Pak is aware of who he is, but nevertheless, he is relatively new on the scene, and definitely new to me. He will be my first review, or set of reviews as I have three of his books.

And so, off to write that review…

Kenard Pak Goodbye Summer cover

 

  • Posted on February 01, 2016

Rutherford the Time-Travelling Moose

 

“I rhyme/To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”

– Seamus Heaney, Personal Helicon

Heaney’s statement, about the act of writing, also resonates for me as a reader. We read to see ourselves – to illuminate our present and our past – to set the darkness echoing.

In Edmonton we rarely, if ever, are given the opportunity to see ourselves and our city reflected in the pages of a book. There have been strides in adult literature, but until the publication of Rutherford the Time-Travelling Moose, there have been no picture books celebrating Edmonton for children.

Rutherford High Level Bridge Schutz

Rutherford the Time-Travelling Moose was initially conceived as a picture book about Edmonton’s history in the context of Rutherford House, the home of the first Premier of Alberta, Alexander Rutherford (1905-1910). The Friends of Rutherford House Society issued a call for story proposals and Thomas Wharton, an award-winning local author, won the bid along with illustrator Amanda Schutz, also a resident of Edmonton.

Wharton was commissioned to “animate” the bones of the story, taking it beyond its original confines to the places in Edmonton the premier and his family would have known.

The journey begins with a young girl named Robin who is visiting her grandmother at an old brick house on Saskatchewan Drive. (Readers in Edmonton will recognize this as Rutherford House.) The smell of cookies baking in a cast-iron stove elicits a conversation about Edmonton’s past. In wanders Rutherford the moose, hungry for his regular Wednesday ‘cookies and tea’ and eager to help Robin with her questions. (For international readers of this blog, please note that in Edmonton moose typically do not wander into people’s homes. Backyards, yes, but…)

Rutherford grandmother's house Schutz

As luck would have it, Rutherford is a time-travelling moose. Astride his back, Rutherford spirits the adventurous girl back to the ice-age and then travels forward through various eras, including a visit to a First Nations settlement along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, fur traders at Fort Edmonton, an early 20th century legislature (where the Famous Five can be spotted in the foreground), the High Level Bridge with a streetcar running along the top (as its facsimile does to this day) and other recognizable Edmonton landmarks and historical touch points.

Rutherford Ice Age Schutz

Unless you’re from a major city like New York or London, like me you probably get excited when you see familiar people and place names in books, simply because it doesn’t happen that often. This alone makes Rutherford the Time-Travelling Moose essential reading for every child in Edmonton, but it’s particularly gratifying as an illustration junkie to see my city presented so beautifully. Schutz’s bold and colourful palette serve Edmonton well, and her humourous characterizations keep the mood light and fun.

The project took six months from beginning to end, which according to Wharton – author of seven novels – is the fastest he’s ever worked. “Writing the YA trilogy Perilous Realm took every ounce of my skill and effort because I had to try and get myself into the head of a younger reader,” he says. “That was a good learning experience and in some ways it prepared me for Rutherford the Time-Travelling Moose. It made me realize I had to think about who I was writing for, and how they see the world.”

Rutherford First Nations Schutz

Schutz was equally sensitive to needs of her audience and to the historical accuracy in her depictions (Rutherford House provided photographs from the provincial archives), but working and living in Old Strathcona proved a definite advantage. “It was very easy for me to pop over to Whyte Ave or Strathcona Library to take images, or think about what elements were important to include in in the book,” says Schutz. “I added a few personal touches. For example, in the Garneau scene a red pick up truck is featured in the foreground. This truck was my grandpa’s old Ford Ranger, which he sold to me for a dollar when I turned 16 and got my drivers license.”

Rutherford red truck Schutz

Wharton admits that working within the constraints of a 32 page picture book was a challenge. “What took most of the work was figuring out how much text we could put on each page, how many visits to different time periods and figuring out how it would look on the page,” he says. “A lot of that was done when Amanda came on board. When I first saw her work, I already had the idea in my mind that this would be a fun, a fast-paced story, and Amanda’s style fit that perfectly. The story came together that way.”

It was Wharton’s idea to use a moose as the ‘vehicle’ for time-travel, based on his own experiences observing the “big, ungainly” animals on the acreage he shares with his wife. It was also his decision to make Robin a girl. “At first we talked about avoiding gender, just making this a kid, which is why I chose the name Robin,” he explains. “It’s a kid, so take your pick, but that proved to be really problematic and clunky in terms of the pronouns. Eventually I decided to make her a tomboy. So she’s got a ponytail, but she’s in pants and she’s a real go-getter.”

Rutherford and Robin Schutz

For children, seeing yourself reflected in the pages of a picture book is important in terms of cultural and experiential awareness. It’s identity-building. Even for adults, a picture book like this provides a colourful doorway into our city’s history – a history that for most of us is a blank page. “We tend to get inundated like everyone else with American culture, and we forget that we have our own,” says Wharton. “But I think it’s important that people understand how things got to be the way they are.”

Indeed. Rutherford the Time-Travelling Moose leaves the reader, young and old, hungry for more Edmonton(or moose)-based stories.

It’s time to set that darkness echoing.

Rutherford kids Schutz

THOMAS WHARTON is the award-winning author of the young adult trilogy Perilous Realm and the Alberta-centric novel Icefields (a Canada Reads finalist). Wharton was born in Grande Prairie, Alberta and is currently an associate professor of writing and English at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

AMANDA SCHUTZ is an Edmonton-based illustrator and designer. Schutz is the creative director of the design firm Curio Studio and her work has appeared in many children’s books and publications.

RUTHERFORD THE TIME-TRAVELLING MOOSE by Thomas Wharton, with illustrations by Amanda Schutz. Rutherford House, 2015

ABOUT RUTHERFORD HOUSE

The story of this book originally appeared in the University of Alberta/Faculty of Arts WORK OF ARTS blog. You may recognize a few phrases…

  • Posted on December 20, 2015

Marguerite’s Christmas

 

Marguerite’s Christmas isn’t for everyone.

The story of a fragile, elderly woman alone on Christmas Eve will leave some wondering if this is appropriate subject matter for children. Others will wonder if its appropriate subject matter for adults, given its juvenile format.

But it is a book for me, and anyone who sees storytelling as non-exclusionary. All stories have a place in children’s literature, as long as they are told well, told sensitively and honestly, and in the case of picture books, told with illustrative depth.

Marguerite’s Christmas is an extraordinary book. Written by Québecois author India Desjardins and illustrated by Pascal Blanchet (Trois-Rivières), Marguerite’s Christmas is one of the most beautiful books in recent memory, and it also deeply sad, because in Marguerite’s solitude we as readers want to reach out to her, even though her reality – being alone at Christmas – is not particularly unusual. The elderly are not always surrounded by family during the holidays like we see on TV, and some people, perhaps many people, are lonely at Christmas.

Marguerite's Christmas tv room

It’s difficult to know if I am ascribing feelings to Marguerite that she herself does not possess. She claims to be happy cocooning in her home, enjoying comforting rituals like watching her favourite holiday movies and not bothering with the tiresome fuss of Christmas. Many of her friends and family have died, and she is no longer interested in making new memories, just revisiting old. She repeatedly reassures her family that she is OK.

And yet, she is frequently startled by routine noises and fears going outside as if suffering from mild agoraphobia. She could probably use some company, but rejects it. Clearly, Marguerite is nearing the end, and at one point even imagines the grim reaper at her door. The scenes that follow give me pause. Is the episode with the car actually happening, or is it part of her ‘passage’ to the other side?

Marguerite's Christmas outside dark

Unlike some adults (or this adult), children will take Marguerite at face-value. The story will not make them uneasy. Instead they will be engaged by Marguerite’s predicament, by her haplessness and vivid imagination (stunningly expressed by the illustrator). Marguerite is a real character. She is endearingly quirky and fastidious. In the most transcendent moment of the book, her kind heart triumphs over her natural reticence when, in spite of her apprehension about venturing outdoors, she helps a stranded family in a broken-down car. It has been a very long time since she has been outside, and the stillness and chill of the winter night releases her fear.

Marguerite's Christmas looking outIt’s a brave and respectful move by India Desjardins to tell this unvarnished story of an elderly person’s winding-down life, and pitch it at children. For everyone, life is a journey, and each moment has its inherent pleasures and torments. And even when you least expect it, a moment of wonder.

The illustrations by Québec illustrator Pascal Blanchet elevate Marguerite’s Christmas into classic holiday fare, pulling out and intensifying the humour and poignancy of Desjardins words. The art is simply stunning, full of quiet, snow-dolloped streets and retro-heavy vignettes that draw from Marguerite’s life, past and present. The exaggerated angles, stylized imagery and flat colours are very much in the manner of Eyvind Earle, one of Disney’s finest background artists. Several years ago, I bought a book of his Christmas card illustrations (800 in total). Blanchet’s winterscapes seem plucked from that magnificent collection of cards Earle created over 60 years ago.

Marguerite's Christmas landscape

Marguerite's Christmas landscape CAR

Marguerite’s Christmas is perfection from the storytelling and illustration to the candy cane end-papers and placement of the type. It’s one of those books where everything works in exquisite balance, each element enhancing the expression of the other. Yes, it is at times an uneasy, layered read, but it is also deeply touching. I’ll not soon forget Marguerite. I feel like I’ve known her my whole life.

Marguerite’s Christmas by India Desjardins, illustrations by Pascal Blanchet. English edition, published by Enchanted Lion Books, 2015.

The original French edition of Marguerite’s Christmas, Le Noël de Marguerite (Les Éditions de la Pastèque, 2014) was shortlisted for the 2014 Governor General Literary Award in Canada for both text and illustration.

For more CHRISTMAS PICTURE BOOK REVIEWS, click HERE. Within that post, is a link to an even longer list of Christmas books!

Marguerite's Christmas fellow walking

  • Posted on November 15, 2015

The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea

When Brenda Z. Guiberson met Gennady Spirin, the picture book gods and godettes smiled. Since their original collaboration Life in the Boreal Forest, the talented twosome have been creating THE Most Amazing covermost beautiful, non-fiction picture books around. It’s not possible to pick a favourite, although I will admit to a strong affinity for the frogs in Frog Song, and as a resident of the north, how could I not love the moose in Life in the Boreal Forest?

Nevertheless, their newest venture The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea is truly amazing, as the title suggests. It’s so strangely beautiful, in fact, it could be a collection of alien creatures as imagined by some unfathomably inspired and slightly demented dreamer.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a fan of the sea. I respect it, I worry about it, and I’ve enjoyed dipping my toes in it, but aesthetically – I prefer a nice tree over a squid. For reasons that I don’t quite understand, fish creep me out.

The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea will not endear the squeamish, like me, but it will beguile. The creatures range from Box Jellyfish (and its millions of stinging toxic cells) to the truly bizarre Barreleye Fish, also known as the spook fish – for good reason: it’s got a transparent head. There are other non-orifice-clenching sea dwellers represented in the book, like sharks and leatherback sea turtles, but each in their own particular and often peculiar way, are vying for the title of the most amazing creature in the sea.

Most Amazing Barreleye Fish

It’s a great premise. Each creature makes its case, and each one is stranger, in an evolutionary sense, than the next. One wonders what selection pressures created this little horror:

“I am an ANGLEFISH. As a female, I lure prey close to my mouth with the light that dangles from my dorsal spine. Smaller males join their bodies to mine, latching on with their teeth until their skin fuses into mine. I eat for us all, sharing the nutrients from my bloodstream. I see for us all when each male attached to me loses his eyes. That’s why I’m the most amazing creature in the sea!”

Amazing, for sure. Also horrific, nightmarish and spectacularly homicidal. Guiberson and Spirin show us a fantastical world that stuns the intellect, astonishes the eye, and confronts our deepest fears.

And don’t even get me started on Hagfish (aka ‘the snot fish’).

Most Amazing Vampire Squid

The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea is a thing of wonder. I may not ever want to meet one of these creatures outside of a Stephen King novel, but I marvel at their very creation. In compelling, but simple detail, Guiberson conveys the individual quality of each creature while making a case for their growing endangerment. As with Life in the Boreal Forest and Frog Song, the author’s notes include additional information about the environmental pressures faced by these and other creatures of the sea, as well as links to conservation organizations.

It is Gennady Spirin’s illustrations that elevate the book from an interesting and informative read to a work of art. How beautifully he imagines this undersea world! It’s as if someone has opened a long buried treasure chest and all the gold and jewels have wafted out, setting the sea alight. I try very hard not to draw a distinction between fine art and illustration, but as I have said before in other posts about this Russian illustrator, Spirin’s paintings are true masterpieces. They would be at home in a museum.

Most Amazing Box Jellyfish

In countless publications, most of them re-tellings of traditional folk and fairy tales, Spirin pulls out exquisite detail in tempera, watercolour and pencil, creating illustrations that appear torn from a 500 year old illuminated bible. They are luminescent, flecked with gold, delicately and richly coloured.

Most Amazing Mimic Octopus

The virtuosity of the illustrations suggest (or perhaps demand) a leisurely pace, but Spirin is prolific, which is great news for those of us who are greedy for each new publication. Interestingly, he does not discriminate – whether its Chekhov, Hans Christian Andersen or Brenda Guiberson – every illustration gig gets the full Spirin treatment. It’s not a stretch to think he (and Guiberson) reveled in the peculiar, almost supernatural details of these creatures, imbuing them with character in spite of their utter lack of charm. I’m sure they’re fine fellows in their own right, but as I have already mentioned, I’m not drawn to the ocean, but in the hands of a brilliant illustrator like Gennady Spirin, I find its creatures admirable, if only for the sheer weirdness of their existence.

Most Amazing Anglerfish

Gennady Spirin studied at the Moscow Art School and the Academy of Arts, as well as the Moscow Stroganov Institute, and currently lives in Princeton, New Jersey. Together with Guiberson, he has published three other books: The Greatest Dinosaur Ever, Frog Song and Life in the Boreal Forest. Beyond this, however, Spirin has created dozens of books, all of which are little masterpieces of illustration.

Brenda Z. Guiberson is an author and illustrator who has had a life-long interest in science. Hailing from Washington state, Guiberson has written many books for children, including Cactus Hotel, Spoonbill Swamp, Moon Bear and Disasters.

I am very happy to report that a sort of sequel to this book will be published in 2016 called The Deadliest Creature in the World. Here’s a sneak preview.

The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea by Brenda Z. Guiberson, illustrated by Gennady Spirin. Henry Holt and Company, 2015

I have also reviewed these other Gennady Spirin gems (click on link for reviews):Frog Song, Life in the Boreal Forest, Martha,various Christmas titles (short reviews)

Most Amazing Sea Dragon

  • Posted on October 31, 2015

The Dark Art of Halloween (updated for 2015)

October is but a mere few hours away from November’s hostile takeover and I’ve yet to post reviews of new Halloween books for 2015, mostly because I have only one. I’m sure there are more, but I’ve been bereft in my picture book trolling. Nevertheless, Leo: A Ghost Story is a gooder and I am happy to add it to my list of BOOtiful Halloween confections. And so, I bring you my annual celebration of the macabre, the creepy, and the deliciously twisted in children’s literature. Yes, this is a re-hash of previous Halloween posts and ghosts of Halloween’s past (CLICK on the links for longer reviews):

Leo a Ghost Story cover“Gary, I’m scared!”

This rather amusing statement initiates a series of events in Leo: a Ghost Story (Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson/Chronicle Books) resulting in a young ghost-boy leaving his home and venturing far afield in search of a more welcoming abode. Young Leo is self-entertaining house ghost occupying an old dwelling on the edge of the city. When a new family moves in, his friendly overtures are less than well received. The family calls in a scientist, a clergyman and a psychic to de-ghostify the house, which Leo believes is a waste of money. He knows he is unwanted.

“I have been a house ghost all my life. Maybe I would like being a roaming ghost for a while.”

Leo a Ghost Story city

Leo says farewell to his home and ventures into the city. Judging by his Little Lord Fauntleroy attire, he is about a hundred years old, and the city looks very different to him. He is quickly lost in the bustling urban setting. The first person to ‘see’ Leo is a little girl named Jane, who invites him to play Knights of the Round Table. Jane takes Leo home, where both the girl and her parents assume he is imaginary. When Jane discovers he is a ghost, she’s pretty cool with it. In fact, she’s a pretty cool girl. Her games are imaginative and inclusive, and it’s wonderful to see her calmly accept Leo for who he is – a ghost in need of a friend.

Leo a Ghost Story sidewalk drawings

I am familiar with Mac Barnett of Sam and Dave Dig a Hole fame but had not heard of Christian Robinson until his name started popping up on the internet in gleeful anticipation of Leo: a Ghost Story. A previous winner of the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for Josephine: the Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, Robinson’s newest book retains the old-timey simplicity of form but introduces a Leo Ghost Story Leo and Janeminimalist and much bluer palette. The San Francisco-based artist uses acrylic paint and cut out construction paper to create his humourous and playful illustrations. Leo is a blue outline, but no less substantial than the rest of the characters – just a little more see-through. The use of varying shades of blue is a nice way to bring diversity to the page without being overt. Leo: a Ghost Story is also beautiful. The colours, though limited to blue, black, and orange (on the cover), are stark and chilly. A little haunted, but invitingly so. I’m with Jane on this one – I would share mint tea and honey toast anytime with Leo.

My only quibble – the title. Personally, I would have gone with Gary I’m Scared, or I See Blue People

Liniers coverPublished in 2014, the truly scary WHAT THERE IS BEFORE THERE IS ANYTHING THERE by the Argentine cartoonist Liniers. This beautifully illustrated book is wildly funny, and surprisingly disturbing. As a former scaredy-cat kid, I can relate to the lad’s nightmarish visitations when the lights go out. Liniers balances humour with creeptastic (and yet somehow affable) creatures that do nothing but stare at the boy – until the thing that is there before there is anything there arrives. Yikes!

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  • Posted on October 28, 2015

Job Wanted

I’ve been meaning to write about the wonderful illustrator Chris Sheban for some time now, almost fourteen years, although in my indefensible defense I’ve only had this blog for five of those fourteen years, and I have a lot of books.

I first came across Sheban’s work at a Washington, D.C. bookstore. It was a tall and slender book called The Shoe Tree of Chagrin, and it remains one of the best and most beautiful ‘finds’ of any trip I’ve experienced, which of course always includes a visit or two to a bookstore. One day I will write about that marvel of a book, but for now I have fallen mightily for a dog. A dog in search of a job.

Job Wanted tired dog

In Job Wanted, written by Teresa Bateman, an old dog must prove his worth to a farmer. It’s not stated why the dog is homeless, but suffice to say, he is an experienced farm dog with an empty belly, an imaginative mind and a willingness to do whatever it takes, including impersonating a cow. The farmer is not convinced, believing that dogs “just eat, and don’t give anything back”. (Clearly, this farmer has never owned a dog.)

“Do you have an opening for a cow?” the dog asked.

“Well sure. But, you’re not a cow.”

“We’ll see about that,” the dog said. “I’ll start work tomorrow.”

Job Wanted large cow scene

Job Wanted Helpful dog

The next day, the dog prepares the cows for milking and the farmer is able to finish the job “in jig time”. Bateman uses this idiosyncratic turn of phrase several times, indicating that the dog’s helpful acts are having their intended effect. Following a confrontation with a fox, the farmer calls the commotion a “foofaraw”. These expressions are a nice bit of characterization, deepening the homey, mid-western feel of the book.

Job Wanted talking to a hen

Wordplay is one of the many pleasures in Job Wanted, accentuated by Sheban’s magnificent watercolour, graphite and Prismacolour pencil illustrations. The Grant Wood-esque landscapes are rendered in sparse detail, allowing Sheban to direct his wondrous imagination to the farmer, the farm animals, and most impressively, the dog. With his grey-flecked snout, plaintive expression, and gangly body, we fall for the old mutt immediately. Surely he has proven his worth just by being so darn lovable? Well, as we learn, farm dogs must earn their keep. It is not enough to be cute (speaking for the farmer, because in my canine world being cute is more than enough).

Job Wanted Fox in Henhouse

Author and illustrator extract the maximum amount of humour, charm and pathos from this story of a dog who is not so much looking for a job as a home. It’s a testament to my investment in this story, and to dogs in general, that I experienced a fair amount of anxiety waiting for the farmer to accept this mutt into his life, and when it finally happens, it’s truly a lovely (and cathartic) moment.

Job Wanted in the henhouse

Sheban’s illustrations are like opals – soft and deep and ever-changing. Sometimes you see the blue, sometimes the gold, but every colour is present, if variably expressed. A translucent glow lifts the tones, Job Wanted dog detailbathing each wash of colour and pencil stroke in morning light. While it’s easy to be charmed by Sheban’s great warmth and humour, each illustration stands on its own as a thing of beauty – from the bespectacled farmer to the fat hens, and most of all an old hound dog who still has a few tricks up his hairy sleeve. If you’ve ever loved a dog, or needed a job, or worked on a farm, or if you just plain love funny, exquisitely illustrated picture books, then I would highly recommend that you pick up Job Wanted…in jig time.

Chris Sheban grew up in Boardman, Ohio, attending Kent State University followed by several years of graduate work. He has been awarded three Gold and three Silver Medals from the Society of Illustrators. Watch these pages (all 32 of them) for reviews of The Shoe Tree of Chagrin, and a couple of other Sheban beauties in my collection: The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly and Catching the Moon. Chris lives in Chicago, Illinois.

Teresa Bateman was born in Moscow, Idaho, but moved to Washington State when she was three-years-old. She is a school librarian, dog lover, storyteller and the author of many wonderful stories and poems for children. Her book Keeper of Soles is an ALA Notable Children’s Book.

Job Wanted by Teresa Bateman, illustrated by Chris Sheban. Holiday House, 2015.

Job Wanted sketch

Job Wanted sketch